Commerce Dept.: Legal Sector Hampered Recovery in 2012

Okay, it didn’t actually say that, but in its wholesale revision of its GDP-by-Industry data the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) proclaimed this morning:

Overall, 20 of 22 industry groups contributed to the 2.8 percent increase in real GDP. … Professional, scientific, and technical services real value added—a measure of an industry’s contribution to GDP—increased 4.2 percent in 2012, continuing to reflect strong growth in computer systems design and related services.

Fifteen years ago, “computer systems design and related services” (computer services) was a junior partner to “legal services” in the “professional, scientific, and technical services” industry group. The legal sector’s share was a quarter of the total and computer services’ was about a tenth. Since the Great Recession, they’ve switched places: Computer services doubled its share; legal services lost a third.

Components of PSTS RVA (2009 $)

Computer services grew 12.6 percent in 2012, legal services -0.2 percent. Way to contribute to America’s recovery, lawyers!

However, in the price inflation race, the legal sector is definitely a winner. All services are 4.6 percent more expensive than in 2009, professional, scientific, and technical services grew 4.1 percent, computer services are 3 percent less expensive, and legal services are a whopping 12.7 percent more expensive than five years ago. I see this as more evidence that the most productive strata of legal profession are being wiped out because Americans are too poor to afford them at any price.

Regular readers might be curious why the above chart stops at 1997 and not 1977 as BEA data did in previous years. The reason is that the bureau excluded those years from its revision, and it used the term “superseded” to ensure that government data daredevils like me would think twice before using the older data. Nice try.

To see the impact the revision has had, here’s a rough comparison of demand for legal services (chain-type quantity indexes) between the last two releases and the new revision.

Legal Services Real Value Added Chain-Type Qty Index

The biggest difference is that the 2014 revision detects a spike in demand for legal services in 2008—probably bankruptcies and foreclosures—whereas in earlier GDP-by-Industry releases peak law was 2005. If you think 2008 is a fluke, a deviation from the general trend, then the “decline of law hypothesis” still holds: Aside from 2008, the year with the largest quantity output for legal services was 2004. (2007 came close though.)

In all three releases the impact of the Great Recession is substantial. The revision posted this morning shows the legal sector contracting 12 percent since 2004, and there are no green shoots in sight.

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2 Responses

  1. Got it backwards I think.

    The less busy lawyers are the more productive everyone else can be.

    Pushing pieces of paper around does not equal building a bridge, replacing a hip etc etc etc

    So the growth in GDP is due in no small part to the reduction in use of lawyers.*

    *This is written only partially tongue-in-cheek.

  2. […] while back I reported on the BEA’s comprehensive revision to its GDP-by-industry accounts that overhauled the data on the legal sector’s output. […]

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